Sudan’s war of attrition

Understanding the game of geopolitical poker between the Sudans requires studying the splits in al-Bashir’s cabinet.

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir has been scrambling to keep his government under control [EPA]

Oxford, United Kingdom – Following days of aerial bombardment, tank battles and illegal border crossings by ground forces on both sides, the heaviest fighting in the border area between Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan, which last year broke away to become an independent nation, seems to be subsiding. Unfortunately, this halting of hostilities is almost certainly temporary.

The military-Islamist Al-Ingaz (“Salvation”) regime in Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M), now the ruling party in Juba, fought each other between 1989 and 2005 in a civil war that destroyed the lives of millions. They are now once again locked in bloody confrontation, fought mostly via proxies: Al-Ingaz reportedly funds insurrections against Juba, while the SPLA/M is understood to be supporting insurgencies in Blue Nile, South Kordofan and Darfur regions. This has led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands in both North and South Sudan, and the emergence of grave food crises – possibly evolving towards famine-like conditions – in Sudan’s interior.

Fears of war between Sudan and South Sudan

Commentators have rightly pointed to the impasse in the negotiations between Khartoum and Juba regarding the “post-referendum arrangements” as a source of tension. In 2005, the Al-Ingaz regime and the SPLA/M signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which was supposed to end half a century of war in Sudan and to peacefully reintegrate the war-torn South into the Sudanese state. Yet the CPA failed to ensure the democratic transformation of a united Sudan and a more equitable distribution of wealth and power. South Sudan voted to secede in a January 2011 referendum, but settling the divorce has proved tricky.

How to divide Sudan’s share of the Nile waters, the lifeline for millions of people and of huge geopolitical significance? Where to draw the border between the new countries and how to allow the movement of hundreds of thousands of people whose livelihood strategies involve activities on both sides of the border? And how to divide oil revenues between North and South? Waging war by proxy is seen by Khartoum and Juba as an instrument to pressure the each former nemesis into making concessions.

Importantly, however, the proxy conflicts and increasingly frequent direct confrontations between Sudan and South Sudan are about more than influencing the modalities of a messy separation. What few have picked up on is the belief that exists within both Al-Ingaz and the SPLA/M that the enemy is about to collapse and that a war of attrition can deliver rapid victory. The enduring impasse in Addis Ababa, where former President Thabo Mbeki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi are brokering North-South negotiations, directly adds to this belief.

Khartoum is convinced that the combination of an economic blockade through closing the border, support for proxy forces, out-of-control ethno-regional tensions and the general weakness of the southern republic will bring SPLA/M Chairman Salva Kiir to his knees in the next few months. Juba, in turn, believes that military-Islamist Khartoum is too damaged by the southern secession and through the growing economic crisis in the North – compounded by the South’s decision to stop producing oil and selling it on world markets via northern pipelines – to survive for much longer. The SPLA/M’s old allies in the North whisper rumours in Salva Kiir’s ears of an impending intifada (popular uprising) in Khartoum.

Power struggle

While much attention has focused on the fractious nature of the SPLA/M leadership and the weak state it tries to control, less is understood about the inner workings of the secretive Al-Ingaz. The biggest threat for Khartoum’s rulers lies less in a possible intifada and is more internal. For the past 18 months, an increasingly tense power struggle has been fought behind the scenes – and sometimes publicly, such as the removal of powerful spymaster Salah Gosh – between the competing factions of the military-Islamist regime.

President Omar al-Bashir and his deputy Ali Osman Taha have been scrambling to keep things under control, but are failing to preserve the unity of Sudan’s longest ever ruling government. While, in early 2011, genuine political and economic reform looked to be on the table, partly driven by the shock of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, today fundamental change under the leadership of Bashir and Taha seems improbable.

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Both the Islamist civilians in the administration and its youth wing are disgusted by the sprawling corruption and the continued stranglehold on power of the same clique of five to ten Al-Ingaz leaders who have remained in control since 1989. After internal demands for democratisation were ignored by the president, they are airing their discontent with increasing audacity, speaking openly of a second split of the Salvation regime. In 1999, the removal of Al-Ingaz’s then political leader, Sheikh Hassan Al-Turabi, nearly tore apart the coalition of generals, Islamists and businessmen and helped cause the Darfur conflict. Khartoum’s economic elites too are repulsed by what they see as mismanagement by Bashir and Taha of billions of petrodollars – and demand liberalisation and a “war on graft” to counter the crisis.

Renewed hostilities with the South, directly and through proxy forces, are seemingly reinforcing the position of the hardliners in the army and security services – Nafi Ali Nafie, Awad Al-Jaz, Abdelrahim Hussein and Bakri Hassan Saleh – and helping them win the support of Bashir and Taha.

Disillusioned moderates argue that the recent cancellation of Bashir’s much anticipated peace-talk visit to Juba is only the most recent example of how the hawks are provoking conflict to strengthen their hold on power and then, in turn, using their influence to thwart liberalising reforms of Sudan’s politics and economy. Islamists and businessmen feel abandoned by an international community that for too long has seen Al-Ingaz as an evil, unreformable monolith and that has given them too little support in their internal battles with the security wing of the leadership.

The implications for peace are sombre. The Khartoum government’s shrinking political base makes it less likely to compromise, not more; nevertheless, even if sources in the presidential palace acknowledge that violent confrontation with South Sudan would be economically ruinous.

Interviews with the senior leadership on both sides of the North-South border continue to show that neither side believes that a full-scale open war is in its interest. But, as history in Sudan and elsewhere has shown, just because politicians and generals believe that conflict is better avoided, doesn’t mean that it can’t break out in the near future. The longer the impasse lasts and the more the hardliners in Khartoum and Juba gain influence, the less likely it is that peace can be maintained.

Harry Verhoeven completed a doctorate at the University of Oxford, where he teaches African Politics. His research focuses on conflict, development and environment in the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes Region and he is the Convenor of the Oxford University China-Africa Network (OUCAN). Outside academia, he has worked in Northern Uganda, Sudan, India and Democratic Republic of Congo.